The White House has “hijacked” transcripts from the House Intelligence Committee’s Republican-led Russia investigation, delaying their release for months, Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told colleagues in a closed-door meeting last week.
The committee authorized the release of its 53 witness interview transcripts a year ago, when Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Republicans led the panel. The transcripts were submitted to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for a review to screen out classified information, and lawmakers had hoped for their quick public release. Nunes even indicated at the time that he hoped they would be out ahead of the 2018 congressional elections.
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But Schiff told his committee on Sept. 17 that ODNI’s review dragged on for months longer than expected before grinding to a halt in March, when intelligence officials said they intended to share the transcripts with the White House. Intelligence officials, Schiff said, had asked permission to allow the White House to review the transcripts to screen out material that may be subject to executive privilege.
“The White House has, in a sense, hijacked what should have been an uncontroversial straightforward review of congressional transcripts to identify and redact any classified information, and attempted to expand it into an unsolicited after-the-fact review for information purportedly protected by executive privilege,” Schiff said.
Schiff said he vehemently objected to allowing the White House to review the transcripts, arguing that the White House’s “overly expansive” view of executive privilege should not be used to “claw back” information already given to Congress. Since then, he said, he and his staff have been locked in negotiations to prevent the White House from retroactively screening testimony the committee received.
“Negotiations now, after 10 months, are at an impasse and our patience has been exhausted,” Schiff said.
Schiff still intends to release the bulk of the Russia transcripts in the near future. He said ODNI has returned 43 of the 53 transcripts to the committee with classified information redacted. Two others, which the White House has sought to review, can be released because they’ve been determined to include no classified information, so the committee can release its own copy, Schiff said. But the remaining eight, he said, have been held “hostage.”
“Because of this issue of executive privilege, and at the direction of the White House, ODNI has refused to complete its review of the remaining HPSCI transcripts, which it is holding hostage because the White House has tied its desired executive privilege review to ODNI’s classification review,” Schiff said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for the office of the DNI said officials reviewing the House transcripts had followed “the same multi-agency processes and procedures the Intelligence Community follows when conducting classification review.”
“In any classification review, the Intelligence Community follows specific processes and procedures with the ultimate objective of producing documents that can be publicly released, including protecting intelligence sources and methods, consistent with the IC’s mission,” the spokeswoman said. “The ODNI is committed to supporting Congress’ critical oversight role while protecting sensitive sources and methods. We have attempted to work with the committee in good faith to achieve both of these goals.”
During the meeting, Republicans reiterated their support for releasing the investigation transcripts but made no comment on Schiff’s characterization of the dispute with the White House. Nunes, instead, said the Office of the DNI was guilty of “dragging its feet.”
“This is simply unacceptable,” he said. “The American people deserve to see the full picture and read these transcripts, many of which were used to support the committee’s investigative report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, which was released to the public in March 2018.”
Schiff asked Nunes to weigh in with the intelligence community to encourage officials to complete their classification review of the remaining eight transcripts.
“And they can say, you know, the White House has its position, and the White House can discuss that with us,” Schiff said. “But all we are asking the ODNI is to tell us what is classified.”